Many more Indians will soon go thirsty if the bans on the products of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which together hold a near-total monopoly of the Indian fizzy drinks market, spread much further. Already a quarter of India’s 28 states have banned the sale – and Kerala has also stopped the manufacture – of Coke and Pepsi products on the grounds that they use water contaminated with pesticides. So far the US companies are losing the public relations battle with local non-governmental organisations and populist politicians whose efforts could disrupt flows of foreign, especially US, investment to India.

That much of India’s groundwater is contaminated will come as no surprise. Its green revolution left farmers very dependent on pesticides. But the evidence on precisely how the purity of Coke and Pepsi products in India relate to local or international standards has been very confusing. The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, which commissioned the tests on the US companies’ products, says their cola drinks contain pesticide residues that are 24 times higher than those permitted under new standards. However, these standards are not yet in force. For their part, the US companies say they comply with “stringent international norms”, including those required by the European Union, and “applicable national regulations”, clearly meaning those still in effect in India.

Coke and Pepsi are sticking to their guns, though they must be very aware of the damage this kind of row can do to their brands, as Perrier, the French bottled water company, found in 1990 when it eventually had to admit the presence of benzene in products that had to be recalled from around the world.

One reason for standing firm is the increasingly political overtones surrounding this case. For it is striking that most of the states banning the US companies’ products are controlled by communist or opposition parties. They have every incentive to embarrass the Congress-led government about its cultivation of closer ties with the US, particularly on the two countries’ proposed nuclear co-operation deal that opponents claim sacrifices India’s political autonomy. But the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry yesterday warned the sales bans could damage the country’s ability to attract foreign investment, and specifically asked Kerala to review its peremptory ban on production.

Coke, for one, is famously sensitive about revealing the ingredients of its products, as India’s supreme court has ordered it and Pepsi to do. But the US companies clearly need to produce some independent test results for their products fast or risk losing their huge Indian market. As for Indian NGOs, they are right to attract attention to their country’s basic water problems, but wrong to drag company brands through the mud in the process.

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